HM Courts & Tribunals Service’s (HMCTS’s) £1.3bn court reform programme is nearing its end, but its focus on delivering reforms quickly has placed additional pressures on the criminal justice system, a new NAO report has found. Despite increasing its budget to reduce the risk of missing deadlines, HMCTS does not expect to be able to deliver the programme to its current timetable and full scope.
Since the NAO last reported in 2019, HMCTS has continued to make progress delivering its reforms. These include rolling out video hearings quickly in response to the pandemic, more online services and introducing new digital systems to courts. But problems occurred due to the pandemic and projects being more complex than HMCTS expected.
A new digital case management system, common platform, was delayed and is unpopular with staff, causing stress and sometimes interfering with the smooth running of live court cases. In some instances (35), IT problems meant criminals not being fitted with electronic tags when they should have been. Before rolling out the system out nationally, HMCTS had only partly evaluated one early adopter site and had not completed robust technical testing. Introducing the new platform before it was ready created extra burdens for courts when they were already under pressure.
HMCTS has previously adjusted the scope of the programme. Following increased delivery risks identified in late 2022, HMCTS is now considering further changes.
HMCTS now expects lifetime savings of £2bn from the reforms. This is £310mn lower than estimates in 2019 owing to revised assumptions, design changes and higher ongoing costs. HMCTS also now expects to see recurrent savings from reform in 2025-26, a year later than when the NAO last reported. These may be delayed further if HMCTS goes ahead with further changes.
HMCTS has a limited understanding of whether reforms are delivering intended efficiencies. While it recorded a net total of £311mn in savings from running costs between 2014-15 and 2021-22, it acknowledges that these figures may not be fully attributable to reform. Costs of running many services are higher than pre-reform and it lacks routine data on how efficiently reformed services are operating.
Some services are not yet operating as expected. For example, many online divorce and probate cases needed manual interventions by court staff despite the relevant project being marked as complete. As yet, HMCTS has no overarching benefits realisation plan.
“This has been a complex and challenging programme for HMCTS to deliver, not least due to the impact of the pandemic. While the programme has continued to make progress, the decision to rollout the common platform without sufficient assurance has put avoidable pressure on the courts at a critical time.
“As HMCTS develops plans to adjust the programme it is essential that it builds in sufficient time to learn as it goes and promptly address any performance concerns. It must also develop its approach to benefits realisation to secure value for money from the £1.3 billion of taxpayers’ money it has invested.”Gareth Davies, head of the NAO